Two conservative-driven decisions with potentially broad consequences will likely define the just-completed Supreme Court term: freeing corporations and unions to spend as much as they like in campaigns for Congress and president, and ruling that Americans have a right to a gun for self-defense wherever they live.
A key member of the five-justice majorities in both cases, and the author of the guns opinion, was Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. Though he has been on the court less than five years, Justice Alito has had an outsized influence in firming up the court’s conservative bloc.
His appointment to replace the more moderate Sandra Day O’Connor, more than any other choice in the last decade shows the importance of Supreme Court nominations. It also points up that Elena Kagan’s nomination to take the place of the like-minded liberal John Paul Stevens almost certainly will not have the same short-term impact as Justice Alito has had.
“Of all the changes in personnel during this time of rapid change at the court, the Alito-for-O’Connor switch has clearly been the most consequential,” said Paul Clement, who was top Supreme Court lawyer for then-President George W. Bush.
Indeed, nothing is likely to alter the court’s current path in either direction unless President Obama has the chance to replace a right-leaning justice, or a future Republican president gets to add another solid conservative vote.
The conservative trend on the court might be even stronger as long as Democrats hold Congress and the White House, said Paul Smith of the Jenner and Block law firm in Washington. “The conservative majority is going to continue to feel a need to push back in a lot of areas,” Mr. Smith said.
The credit, or criticism, for many of the court’s high-profile decisions goes variously to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the putative leader of the court’s conservatives, or Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who dislikes the label “swing justice,” but is always in the majority when the other eight justices split along liberal and conservative lines.
Their influence certainly was in evidence this term. Chief Justice Roberts was in the majority more than any other justice - 92 percent of the time - and Justice Kennedy wrote the campaign-finance decision, as well as one in which the liberal justices prevailed, ruling out life prison terms with no prospect of parole for juvenile offenders in other than murder cases.
Yet the 60-year-old Justice Alito has been a far more reliable conservative vote than Justice O’Connor ever was. Justice Alito also was in the majority in 5-4 rulings that supported police officers in interrogation of criminal suspects, prevented the televising of the trial over California’s ban on gay marriage and probably will allow a war memorial cross to remain in the Mojave Desert.
Consumer and liberal interest groups, as well as some Democrats, have complained that the Roberts-led court tilted more than ever toward business interests. Mr. Obama made the point himself with unusually critical remarks about the court’s campaign-finance decision in his State of the Union speech in January.